Ferdinand Magellan and me (64)

Assassination of MendozaA Singular Captain

Assassination of Captain Mendoza


On Palm Sunday the crews celebrated mass on a rocky island inhabited by sea wolves, penguins and gulls. With a cold wind moaning out of the desert, flapping his vestments about his legs and carrying his voice away, Padre Valderrama retold the story of how the Son of David came to Jerusalem on an ass. The people spread branches in the road and cried, “Hosanna, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord,” and the Pharisees plotted against Him and conjured up treachery among his disciples.


After the mass, a deputation for the sailors begged leave to speak with the captain general. Their spokesman was San Antonio’s quartermaster, a Genoese, who asked the captain general on behalf of his shipmates to restore the wine and biscuit, to depart from this place and return to Rio for the winter. Magellan heard him out and offered words of encouragement but no way was he going to turn back.


“South is where El Paso lies. It’s not far now, my friends. Once the winter thaws it will be an easy sail.”

The grumbling men returned to their boats drawn up on the shore and it was clear they were far from happy. Magellan’s main concern was that his captains, Mendoza, Quesada, de Coca and Cartagena ignored the Divine Service and also Magellan’s invitation to a meal aboard Trinidad.

The simmering pot came to the boil next morning. De Coca arrived aboard Trinidad and presented a note signed by Cartagena, Mendoza and Quesada demanding the Armada de Maluku return to Spain, where Magellan’s conduct would be subject to an enquiry by the Casa de Contratación. Armed men could be seen on the decks of Victoria and Concepción and others lined the bulwarks. On San Antonio’s poop, Cartagena paraded up and down like a peacock. Magellan crumpled the note and flung it to the deck. This was war.

There had never been a whiff of mutiny aboard Trinidad. Magellan mustered his men and, with the aid of Espinosa, the able master at arms, formed a fighting force of loyal volunteers. Magellan went on the attack. The fighting was furious that day, although only a small minority took up arms against the captain general. This was a mutiny by captains, not deck hands, and Espinosa disposed of Mendoza early in the fray. His bloody corpse was strapped to Victoria’s main-mast as a warning to mutineers.


Concepción posed the risk of escaping through the channel and heading back to Spain once the tide began to ebb. Magellan led a boarding party that clambered up over the bulwark yelling and screaming and slashing the air with their weapons. The resistance faded and the opposing crew backed up, surprised by the ferocity of the attack. Magellan engaged captain Quesada, who threw down his sword, fell to his knees and begged for mercy like the true coward he was. Cartagena, the instigator of all this fury, was similarly meek in defeat but Magellan had a special punishment in store for that bishop’s bastard.





    Mutiny in Port St Julian




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Ferdinand Magellan and me(35)

Pigafetta's map of Timor

Pigafetta’s map of Timor

Pigafetta’s gift to the world.

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The most serious casualty of our shipwreck at Nishtun was my facsimile edition of Antonio Pigafetta’s journal of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage. It had turned to sludge along with several charts in the panic of trying to refloat Wathara.

Pigafetta’s memoir deserves to be classified a world heritage treasure: unique in its time, shrewd in its observations and even entertaining. Pigafetta can be regarded as the world’s first anthropologist. At a time when the Spanish empire was invading South America, trashing local culture and enslaving or murdering the natives, Pigafetta showed a genuine interest in the appearance, the customs and above all the language of the people he encountered along the way.

I am very fond of Pigafetta. I have a vision of him sitting cross-legged interviewing the alleged cannibals of Brazil or the giants of Patagonia, transcribing their words to a wax tablet. Later he would collect these words into the first lexicons of their native languages. He took a particular interest in one native of Patagonia whom he named Paul. Magellan had captured this man by trickery and clapped him in chains, planning to convert him to Christianity and take him back to Spain like a zoo specimen. Pigafetta protected him as best he could and cared for him until he eventually died of starvation or scurvy. Paul gave the first Patagonian word, Setebos to the English language via Pigafetta’s journal and Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Upon his return to Spain Pigafetta presented a copy of his journal to the king, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. His aim was, as he said to the king, that the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time. He wrote versions of his tale for the king of Portugal and the Regent of France. His work was plagiarised by Maximilian of Transylvania, bastard son of the Cardinal Archbishop of Salzburg who had the document published and promoted throughout Europe and eventually Britain.

Returning to Italy, Pigafetta met Philippe de Villiers l’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the order of the Knights of St John. They apparently hit it off together and Pigafetta was initiated into the order. He wrote another manuscript of his story and presented it to the Grand Master. He also obtained permission from the Doge of Venice to publish his book. Over the years, a number of these manuscripts have emerged and fetch high prices at antiquarian book stores. Pigafetta’s memoir of the first circumnavigation of the world has been published several times from different sources. Many books have been based upon it but the original, illustrated with water colour sketches, is the only reliable one.

Pigafetta joined the Knights of St John in Malta and died there in 1534.




Pigafetta’s journal of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage






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Martellus world map

The Martellus map of the world

The word Mediteranean means middle of the Earth and for many centuries that’s how it was depicted on maps. In Magellan’s time the most authoritative map of the world was that by Claudius Ptolemy, the great astronomer and geographer of second century Alexandria. No doubt Magellan knew it from his studies at the Portuguese Institute of Navigation sponsored by Prince Henry, known as the Navigator although he never went to sea.
As the Portuguese extended their empire they added to their knowledge. Map-making was a growth industry and maps of new worlds were guarded as State secrets. Magellan had access to a number of maps and globes, some more accurate than others. None of them featured the strait at the tip of South America that was later to bear his name.
The problem was not only the lack of information about distant lands but also the difficulty of rendering a spherical Earth on a flat sheet of paper. Men of science no longer doubted the world is round but the mathematics and techniques of cartography were in their infancy. Prominent Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes was the first to produce a formula representing a rhumb line, or loxodrome, by a straight line on a map. The importance of this is that the rhumb line is a constant compass direction as steered by a ship. Gerard Mercator extended the technique and his name now describes the familiar map of the world seen in atlases and elsewhere. The Mercator chart is still an idealised representation of the world. It suffers from severe distortion in high latitudes and the latitude or distance scale is not uniform.
A great difficulty facing medieval navigators was that maps of their day truncated or omitted the Pacific Ocean. They knew the circumference of the Earth was 360 degrees but no one knew how many miles or leagues there were in a degree of longitude. Columbus and Magellan both underestimated the circumference of the Earth by about one third. This almost led to failure of Magellan’s expedition due to death by starvation and scurvy. No one had previously imagined the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

In 1962 an anonymous donor presented Yale University, USA, with a long lost map drawn by German cartographer Martellus in the late 15th century. It was in very poor condition but new techniques enabled researchers to peel away layers of dirt and enhance images with electronic scanners. Historians speculate Christopher Columbus may have known of this map and, if so, Magellan would have known of it too. It is thought to have been influenced by information brought back from China by Marco Polo. It is intriguing for the inclusion of considerably more detail of Asia than other maps of the time. It features an image of a castle supposed to represent Paradise. Columbus claimed to have discovered Paradise on his final voyage but historians believe that Columbus’s Paradise was the Orinoco River. The Martellus map shows a greater extent of South America than contemporaneous maps. If Magellan did know of it, this could explain his utter conviction that a strait lay at the tip of South America known as The Dragon’s Tail.

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